Quit looking, NHL, you don’t have fans left

If a tree falls in the woods and only Rick Moranis, Dennis Leary and Goldberg the Goalie hear it, does it make a sound? The National Hockey League owners have locked out the players leaving this season and the prospective future of the organization in serious jeopardy. But the widespread uproar that accompanied Major League Baseball’s strike in 1994 and near-work stoppage in 2002 has been missing.

Obviously, there are hockey fanatics (98% of whom live north of the border and for whom this is the saddest moment since “Bobby’s World” was pulled out of syndication) who will bemoan the loss of their prized league. But they can find solace in the college and junior ranks where the game doesn’t have the fatal flaws it does on the professional level. And I’m sure the execs at ESPN won’t lose much sleep over the holes in their schedule that can now be plugged with the NBA (to which it purchased the rights in a forward-thinking move before the 2002-03 season) and clairvoyant midget poker.

The NHL lost a lot of its momentum when it went on strike following the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, which captured the imagination of the American media and public following the New York Rangers’ quest for a first title in 54 years. In the last decade, the league has not been able to garner the requisite fan support needed to financially maintain itself especially given that salaries have been escalating steadily and disproportionately compared to the revenue the game produces. Here’s why:

10) The regular season is less important than jaywalking statutes. Eighty-two games stretched out over six months is totally unnecessary and removes any sense of urgency. Playoff hockey is some of the most exciting stuff sports has to offer because the play is noticeably more desperate. The strike-shortened 1994-95 season was the best one the NHL has had to offer in years — 50 games is about the right number.

9) Any semblance of creativity is stifled by the clutching, grabbing and holding made possible by the neutral zone trap. Honestly, the devisers of this strategy share a place in how best to ruin a sellable product Hall of Fame with the people who told Jewel to become Christina Aguilera and the ones who let Kevin Kline make “Wild Wild West.” This year’s final between Calgary and Tampa Bay, maligned because it featured two less-than-marquee teams and markets, was reasonably entertaining because neither team felt the incessant urge to grope and molest at center ice. Eliminating the red line and widening the rink to Olympic dimensions would make the game infinitely more watchable.

8) Hockey is just not a TV-friendly sport, and all experiments to make it one have failed. Football has its first-down line superimposed, baseball has its K-Zone, and the NHL has its glowing blue puck with the flaming red tail that always makes me think I’m watching Sonic the Hedgehog on ice.

7) The only time hockey really generates any buzz is when Todd Bertuzzi or Marty McSorley decide to go MXC on their opponents, and so in response, the NHL cracks down on fighting. The NHL either operates under the presumption that recognizing fighting as a legitimate part of the game creates the atmosphere that makes possible more egregious acts or simply capitulates to ignorant public outrage by targeting fighting after these more visible transgressions have taken place. The mere possibility of players dropping the gloves puts fans in the seats, and the league should distinguish between respectable fisticuffs and cowardly acts of aggression so as to not diminish one of its strongest selling points.

6) The lack of a dominant team hurts the league. New Jersey, Detroit and Colorado have consistently been the best teams of the past decade, but none to the point of inspiring hatred on a Yankees/Lakers/Cowboys/Duke level. Since the brilliant Islanders and Oilers of the 1980s, nothing approaching a dynasty has materialized, leaving fans without something to consistently root against.

5) Along with the lack of a dynasty goes the lack of a big-time rivalry that can capture the nation’s imagination. I don’t care how heated the Detroit-Colorado games have been recently, no one outside those two regions cares. It makes no difference to me who wins men’s field hockey grudge matches between India and Pakistan, and the only reason I might be interested in the blood feuds between the Wings and the Avs is because Kid Rock rhymed Yzermans with Heinekens, which is pretty sweet.

4) Since Gretzky, no superstar has assumed the mantle as the marketable face of the game. Jarome Iginla could set up shop next to the Flower Lady, and maybe three people would go for it if he offered his autograph for a quarter.

3) Too much making the fans feel like Beavis: We’re never gonna score! Lack of goals = lack of an audience.

2) We don’t aesthetically appreciate the beauty of a one-timer or a sprawling glove save the way we do a home run, a catch over the middle or a slam dunk. It’s just true. And that’s something the NHL has no control over.

1) Any endeavor, such the recently scrapped North America vs. the World All-Star Game format, in which the United States has to team with Canada simply to have a fighting chance, won’t be taken seriously by American sports fans. Letting Norm MacDonald host the Weekend Update tread on our parochial nature as it was — needing Canada to help us beat a conglomeration of Finns and Czechs in anything instantly means hockey barely makes a blip on our national conscience.

The paradox here is that all of these notions helped precipitate the lockout but also made the lockout all the more ridiculous. How can you alienate a fan base that didn’t really exist in the first place and hope to get it back?

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